There’s a moment in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir – exactly when is down to you – when a song suddenly pops into your head. It’s Pulp’s Common People. Because, although you’re watching Hogg remembering her student days, you can’t avoid the feeling that the central character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), has more than a smattering about her of that girl who studied sculpture at St Martin’s College.
Not that she’s so insensitive as to refer to “common people”, but she’s definitely a product of her upbringing, a film student from a privileged background with parents who live in a stylishly traditional country house and fund her flat in London, which is literally over the road from Harrods. Corner shops don’t come more posh. Her almost hermetically sealed upbringing has protected her from the real world, yet her big idea for her first feature is about a young man growing up in depravation in Sunderland. It’s no wonder that one of her tutors suggests she consider making a film closer to her own experience. Not that she listens.
Shattering the security of her glass bubble is Anthony (Tom Burke), older, flamboyant of dress and who openly admits “I’m playing” and he’s doing that with just about every aspect of his life, her included. She falls hopelessly in love but over dinner with some of his friends she discovers his dark secret, something she was literally innocent of, and it’s devastating. Yet it’s a testament to Hogg’s direction, writing and compassionate approach to not just Julie but her parents and their privileged lives that at no point are we hostile or cynical about her unhappiness. These are, for all their distance from what most of us would consider real life, people with genuine emotions and problems. Money and influence might make things easier, but they don’t guarantee a pain free ride.
Julie’s world is one where people outside her social circle are kept at arm’s length and that’s exactly how the film treats its audience. It’s not a film to love, like or enjoy and doesn’t set out to be. Instead, “respect” is the word that comes to mind. It paints an immaculately detailed portrait of a way of life and a point in time, the 80s. She’s at home when she hears the bomb go off at Harrods, so that tells you the year is 1983. She clearly has the best of everything and that flat must cost a pretty penny in rent. As a portrait it’s impressive, as are some of the images, especially those of Julie viewed through the double glazing of her window, so that her profile looks like a double exposure.
The acting is of an equal calibre, especially the luminous Honor Swinton Byrne, who by all accounts improvised her scenes while the rest of the cast worked with the script. She has an artless quality on screen, one that’s a perfect match for her character, an innocent abroad who is put through the emotional wringer. Her real life mother, Tilda Swinton, is as excellent as you would expect in her usual chameleon way, as Rosalind, the 80s mother who looks and dresses 20 years older than she probably really is. And who, despite seeming cool and distant at times, loves her daughter deeply and understands her far better than anybody could imagine. There’s strong stuff, too, from Tom Burke (TV’s Strike) as the boyfriend with a multitude of problems whose hold over Julie is such that he can twist her round his little finger – or less.
The Souvenir provokes mixed reactions and emotions. Certainly respect but not warmth. You’ll be engrossed but not necessarily captivated. There’s a coolness about it that, despite your sympathy for Julie and a growing understanding for her mother, will still keep you at arm’s length. And that’s because you’re the outsider, observing the story through that fourth, glass wall – and never the twain shall meet.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama, Romance | Cert:15| UK, 30 August (2019) | Curzon Artificial Eye | Dir. Joanna Hogg | Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Jack McMullen.